Episode 2: Lehigh Valley Immigration Economic & Land Development with Becky Bradley
Speakers- Raymond Lahoud, Becky Bradley
Welcome to Norris Speaks, Immigration Matters, a limited podcast series where we delve into the economic employment and cultural realities of immigration in the Lehigh Valley in Greater Pennsylvania. I’m your host Ray Lahoud, member and chair of the immigration group at Norris McLaughlin. On this episode, I’m joined by Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, and quite honestly the coolest person in the world. Becky is, in my humble opinion, one of the most, if not the most influential, committed, and dedicated leaders of our great Lehigh Valley. She has been here for a long time. Honestly, I think I remember, Becky, when I met you first. I was probably about 12 or 13 years old when I was walking around Easton City Hall. And you were the head of planning and zoning back then, and I would attend planning and zoning meetings and ask really random questions. That probably didn’t make sense to you back then, but I really appreciate your trying to help me. So it was back a long time. You’ve done quite a bit since then, you know, since I’ve gotten to know you, you know, while in Easton, it was you that really kick-started the revitalization that’s really still transforming the city of Easton to this day. And since you’ve been the executive director at LVPC, you’ve played an incredible and a significant role when it comes to our long-term transportation, housing, and commercial and industrial planning for the Lehigh Valley. And it’s really good to have you on here and hopefully kind of just talk about, you know, economic development, how immigration plays a role in it, planning, and the like. So welcome.
Thank you, and thanks for inviting me. I just love talking to you so much. You’re right. I I’ve known you for a really long time. I didn’t realize how long until you said it.
Because you’re from Illinois, so you come from the great state of Illinois, where a good man named Ray Lahoud was from – not me, the other Ray Lahoud, who I was a congressional page for in D.C., and many in D.C. confused me for him. He was a congressman and later became Secretary of Transportation for President Obama, but you met him a couple of times too.
Oh yeah. Yeah. He’s a great man. Yeah, my dad knows him.
So let’s talk. There’s a lot happening in the Lehigh Valley. I mean, we’ve got foreign companies coming in here developing, we have a huge workforce sort of migration from New York and New Jersey locally. How is the planning commission kind of dealing with workforce development when it comes to future planning, whether it’s manufacturing sites or warehousing or the like, does that play a role in that?
Well absolutely. people in general drive everything. Let’s be honest about it, especially in a region like ours that is so dynamic. And, you know, we work with a whole series of partners to put together the regional plan, which kind of coordinates, combines, and collaborates with other regional partners down to folks who are just interested and want to be part of planning the future of the Lehigh Valley. So definitely work with the Workforce Board of the Lehigh Valley every day on specific workforce issues. But I think a lot of people haven’t really thought through the fact that back in 1990, only 8% of the population in the Lehigh Valley was minority. Now it’s over 20% of the region’s population. A lot of that’s because of immigration, quite frankly.
Yeah. That’s funny. I was reading an article in the Morning Call or Express recently about the increase in the Hispanic population in Allentown, Lehigh County. It’s really become a huge part of our community.
You’re spot on. And it’s to the point, especially with our transportation planning, that we actually have translation services available now because so many of the region’s population has Spanish as a first language, but that’s followed by Mandarin Chinese and Arabic. So it’s a diverse group of people as well in the Lehigh Valley. And there’s many, many more languages spoken here, obviously, and many people from all over the place in the Valley as well. But we certainly have become a more worldly location and region, and it becomes so attractive for everything, from people just looking for quality of life and great schools and recreational opportunities to jobs. So it’s a really wonderful time in that regard.
I mean, in terms of the landscape of immigration, it’s changed a bit overall, how people perceive it, how people look at it. You know, I’m the son of immigrants who came here in the 1970s from Lebanon — hardworking, dedicated people, huge Lebanese community in Easton who adore you to this day, because of your hard work and what you’ve done to revitalize not only the city of Easton and start that, but bring the Lehigh Valley together as one economic planning entity in essence, that’s incredibly important right now. Like how do the differences in cultures play into that? You know, the differences between the Italians, and certain South American cultures or Lebanese cultures, how does the Lehigh Valley, you think, kind of work in that it’s become really a successful place for diversity?
Well, that’s the magic mix, right? Is it isn’t just a one trick pony, that people have their own individual identities? They have cultural and ethnic identities, whether they have been here for a long time or just moved here from a whole other place in another part of the country. And I think that idea that you mentioned of hard work is really part and parcel of the Lehigh Valley and our economic growth and our attractiveness, not only to industries and business, but to people. There’s, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. There’s a culture that you roll up your sleeves, pick up the shovel next to everybody else, and dig in, that there’s an opportunity for you here. And that is definitely more likely to get you ahead in a place like the Lehigh Valley than you are in markets that are completely saturated. And if you look at incomes, you know, for different types of jobs, you can work in what is traditionally considered a blue-collar position like construction, and still make as much as someone working in a white collar job or a gray collar job. So there’s a lot of opportunity to have a good life and to have the same things, regardless of what your chosen profession is or the profession you fell into or whatever the case may be. And there’s, I think another component of the Valley, which my husband —
Very good man, your husband, if I could just throw that out there.
Thank you, Ray. You’re so nice. I think he’s a great guy too, but he’s Pennsylvania German and his family came here in the 1730s, like the early 1730s. And they really weren’t allowed to stay in Philadelphia because the English in Philadelphia didn’t really want them there. And so, they basically were like, come to what is now the Lehigh Valley, farm the land, cut the timber, send us some back. But there was a real kind of disconnection, and that allowed, you know, people from other places to start to build their own life here. And the one thing that he told me out of that story that really stuck out to him, explaining to me the place and how it’s come to be what it is today was the fact that, you know, where in America can you still find a culture that has been there for over 200 years and maintained its identity and it’s still okay? And as other waves of new people came in, they were welcomed too, and he said like, look, it’s totally okay to have the cultural, ethnic background that you have here. People just want to know that you’re decent and that you’re, you know, willing to be part of the community. Yeah.
A good person. I mean, we do seem to integrate, you know, very well here when it comes to new immigrants. It’s interesting to hear about your husband. So his great grandparents immigrated here from Germany?
1732. So like some great-great-great. Dinosaurs just finished roaming the earth is —
That is incredible. I mean, they were at the forefront of it. I mean, when you think about it, I mean, those were the people who really built what we have today I’d say.
Well, started it, you know, and look at the Lebanese community in Easton. I mean, they have defined entire neighborhoods inside the city and contributed to the city as a whole and provided a tremendous number of jobs and tremendous amount of contributions, whether it’s to the park system, to the schools. So many community-related things that the Lebanese community has contributed just in one city. You know, there’s multiple neighborhoods. And I know that’s like your experience. And so I think
We’re one Lehigh Valley in the end, in the end, we do come down to that because even like Lebanese and Easton Italians here, Ecuadorians in certain areas, Venezuelans in certain areas, Germans in certain areas, in the end they come back as one Lehigh valley.
Right. Well, and it’s one United States. I think this region actually defines that whole ideal, that we were all taught in school, of America. And I think that’s another reason why so many people want to come here, because it’s actually possible.
Yes. I agree with you completely. And that’s been lost in so many parts of America, that sense of community, that sense of Americanism, that sense of we’re in this together. I mean, one Lehigh Valley.
Right. I mean, does not the Statue of Liberty say, you know, give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.
It does, but where’s the limit? Where’s the limit, though? I mean, how many people can the Lehigh Valley hold? I mean, how many? Now I look at this in so many different respects, too, even as an immigration attorney that, you know, you look at the Lehigh Valley. We have people coming in here from New Jersey, from New York, all over the world, and how much more immigration is good? And those are all questions that we have yet to answer, and Congress is working hard to answer, and is completely out of my pay grade right now.
Definitely out of mine too, but I can tell you how many people were projecting to move to Lehigh Valley.
We’re actually projecting that we’re going to see a 24% population increase by year 2045. We do think, and I mean, that’ll take us, you know, well, over 800,000 people, and we have about 639, 640 right now, according to the census, though we do believe that there is some undercount there, but at the end of the day, we can accommodate those people and still maintain the farmland and open spaces if we choose to build in places that are connected to existing infrastructure. So water, sewer, roads near transit lines, near schools, near all those things that you need near job centers. If we stay clustered around that developed area of the Lehigh Valley and redevelop inside of it, there’s also still some land left in that developable patch that has good infrastructure access to it. That takes off the pressure of farmland and open space, helps us protect our natural resources as well, which is, you know, critical to everything from the air we breathe to climate resiliency and in all of these other really important things.
Actually a good point you bring up with the environment, you know. I deal with a lot of international companies that are looking at moving to the United States or, you know, making foreign direct investments in the United States. How do you focus on or handle the cultural differences in terms of the environment and how others across the world may look at the environment, say for example, China and the. like. We have several Chinese companies that have moved to the United States, moved to Lehigh Valley. Their environmental type history isn’t as we would want it to be. So is that something that you deal with in terms of your position there at the Planning Commission, working with those companies to try to make sure that they meet the environmental requirements, or do you have difficulty with that?
We don’t have difficulty with that actually. We deal with the land development side, right? So redevelopment and land development, we don’t deal with business recruitment or retention. That’s what the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation does. I’m in the workforce components or through the workforce board, obviously, but at the end of the day, you know, we’re oftentimes like the first door they knock on, right? Because they want to do something important and they want to know, usually their first question is “what do we have to do to get this done?” which is always a great place to start. Because it tells you that they’re interested in finding out how we do business, just as much as we’re interested in what they’re proposing to do, and whether that makes sense or not, at least from the building side of things. But absolutely, laws in America are very transparent. It’s one of the things that makes this nation great. And one of the things that we spend too little time actually talking about.
Yeah, exactly. Because It’s not that way in other countries, as you know. And here they’re published, they’re available on the internet. And if you can’t find them on the internet, all you have to do is figure out the agency that’s responsible and they will give you a copy; they’re required to. So, at the end of the day, walking people through what the regulatory requirements are upfront then makes it a smoother process to see if what they’re proposing to do, their, building works or not. You know, a lot of it’s going back and forth with engineers and architects and people who specialize in stormwater management and other things to see if the project works. And we do that in partnership with the local government and any other regulatory agencies, whether it be Pennsylvania Department Station (of Sanitation?) or Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
You really make it all come together, though?
We have a coordination role …
Yeah, that’s what it is.
… and a collaboration role. We’re neutral and that’s very important. You know, a regional agency that is neutral. So we have to look at every new proposal on its face. For its merits, uh, as well as, you know, things that might not be optimal, and see if you can work through those things to see if it’s possible for that development to move forward or not. In some cases, it isn’t. And that, I think, is the toughest part of what we do at the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
You have to do it sometimes.
You have to do it.
Yeah. So 50 years from now, let’s talk 2050. You’d see the Lehigh Valley in 20. Give me your view of the Lehigh Valley in 2050.
Well, there’s a lot happening on the mobility side where, you know, we focus a lot of our time, besides the land use and preservation aspects. I mean, we are going to be driving alternatively-fueled vehicles. And you will have, at that point by 2050, automated vehicles on the road.
That scares me a little bit though, because you know, I can’t drive myself. So, like I’m scared of automation. But I’m just kidding. That would be very interesting though, with the automatic vehicles on Route 22.
Yeah, it’s your personal train essentially, you know. It’s your personal train car, your personal bus, basically what it is.
You see trains coming back to the valley?
No, I don’t
Ah. I love the trains. We’ll keep it at that though.
Yeah. I could teach a PhD class on that at this point, don’t shoot the messenger. You just asked me a question. I gave you an honest answer, but at the end of the day, yeah, you going to pay $500 for a ticket. No, it’s up to the state of New Jersey anyway, because the line goes through there. It’s not up to us. So 2050, we will have a lot more people; we will have well over 800,000 people, probably pushing 900,000. So you’re going to see a little bit more density. I would start to think about density in a similar way to what you see outside of Washington, D.C. So a lot more four- and five-story buildings. I don’t think it’s going to be a ton of 20-story buildings or giant skyscrapers all over the place. But I think you’re going to start to see, on key transportation corridors where people can get around more easily, more density. I think you’ll see we’re working with Lanta, the region’s transit agency, to do an enhanced bus- bus rapid transit route.
Which is basically a train of buses.
That would be huge for immigrant communities.
Working on it now. That’d be great. And you know, that should be significantly deployed. You know, the issue with transit all the way around is if you don’t have the population density, and it isn’t easy for people to take it, they won’t take it. Yeah. It won’t be worth it. So as our region grows, we’ll mature into higher level transit, just like as our region grows, we will mature into more dense housing, more dense business development. I think the wild card here, though, is the face of work and what that’s going to look like post-pandemic.
Where are people going to be working? Is it going to be remote? People going to be afraid to come back? Which brings a question to immigration. We’ve represented, again, a lot of employers who have H1B employees abroad and in the United States but have been working abroad for the last two years, which kind of in a certain respect immigration, as you know, what’s the purpose of them coming to the United States, if they could do their work remotely in the other country? All kinds of questions are coming up. And even with the F1 student visa is, I mean, a lot of schools went remote, so questions are coming up, you know, if they can do their classes remotely. What’s the purpose of an F1 visa or the like? So many different issues here. I cannot thank you enough for being here today. You are incredible.
Thank you, Ray. I miss you.
You’re the best — I miss you too. I mean, we have to do lunch, hang out, and honestly, really good having you here. Give my best to your husband and to everybody at LVPC. So this has been Norris Speaks, Immigration Matters, a limited podcast series where we deal with economic employment and cultural realities of immigration in the Lehigh Valley and greater Pennsylvania. I want to thank Becky Bradley for joining us today, and each of you for listening. Be sure to tune in to our next podcast for a brand new episode. And if you’d like to learn more about immigration law, visit our website at www.nationalimmigrationlawyers.com.